For those wondering, Dimitri sits in an overstuffed automatic massage chair, stroking a geriatric cat in his lap and sending out random, opaque, cryptic one-liners. “Evil!” he says, “Write!” There’s cackling involved as he leans deeper into his seat to watch us struggle. Anyway, contemporary art typically paints in shades of grey. Dracula becomes a protagonist, and we’re robbed of our monsters, made poorer for it like when they stopped serving a dill pickle with every club sandwich. To commemorate the release of Fede Alvarez’ remake of The Evil Dead (1981), our contributors recommend four oeuvres about pure, unadulterated evil.
Batman: Death of the Family (2012)
How do you recommend evil? The very concept pulls language and imagination in opposite directions. We associate evil with the word “darkness”, yet, in art, it’s generally the more colorful, the flash of crazy against which the protagonist plays straight and flattens into shadow. In keeping with this, I’d argue that one of the most colorful evildoers haunting popular imagination is the Joker. Granted, ever since Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in 1988, the character has sunk deeper and deeper into sadism. Heath Ledger certainly took his cue from this incarnation, and Scott Snyder’s has tapped the same vein with Death of the Family.
The Joker was conspicuously absent when DC rebooted its line under the “New 52” banner. According to the new timeline, the Clown Prince of Crime disappeared after he carved off his own face. He makes an explosive return in Death of the Family, stealing back his ghoulish, smiling lips from the Gotham Police Department as the first step in a frightening act of calculated madness. The setup forces us to literally look into the face of evil: a rotting piece of flesh that keeps slipping out of place. Appropriately, we never see what lies behind. However, we do follow the Bat-family as they find themselves hounded by their oldest enemy, forced to look into their own hearts. Evil doesn’t always lie in the acts of others but rather in what they inspire.
I really don’t know anything about The Evil Dead. If pressed to pick something in the “malevolent corpses” genre, I would choose Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004), with its message about the evils of a life less lived, over anything that dwells on the horrors of psychopathic ghouls. In a broader conversation about the diabolic, though, I favour a romp with Evil Inc., such as the kind found in the defunct WB series Angel, which ran from 1999 to 2004.
Watching Buffy’s favourite vampire with a soul duke it out week after week against the corporation of evil that was Wolfram and Hart, Attorneys at Law, was like bearing witness to the battle taking place within each of us: our fight to overcome the never-ending horrors of the consumption-driven human condition. I particularly like the end of the series, which points out the futility of hoping that these temptations will ever disappear all the while celebrating the virtues of the continued struggle. Certainly, it left me feeling like knowing we are tempted is half the battle. That the cast was easy on the eyes and ears (I’m a sucker for Spike’s accent) just made the knowing all the more fun.
His Dark Materials (1995-2000)
I know most people think of Satan when the subject of evil is brought up. I don’t, but that’s because I find him the most interesting character in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. No, for me, the ultimate evil consists of any entity that would do harm to others through a rigid and dogmatic way of thinking. The best illustration of this can be found in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Some may recognise its first entry, The Golden Compass (a.k.a. Northern Lights), which was adapted for the screen in 2007.
The main villain in His Dark Materials consists of the Magisterium, a religious organisation that cuts out people’s daemons (animal representations of their souls) in the name of obedience. Privy to a conspiracy to keep the populace in ignorance, our heroes, Lyra and Will, travel to different worlds, accompanied by armoured bears, witches, and angels, in order to keep their free will. You wouldn’t expect such themes in a series of books aimed at pre-teens, but Pullman manages to bring these complex ideas together in a clear narrative. What I love the most about these novels is that the author never talks down to his young audience. What scares me the most is that the evil they depict are as real in our world as they are in Lyra’s.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Just like in real life, malevolence can take many forms in fiction, but few have had me hooked like the high concept of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which follows a group of academics investigating a paranormal manifestation believed to be the Antichrist. I spent the first hour absolutely riveted as I watched quantum physicists, radiologists, and linguistic anthropologists try to measure evil incarnate, theorising as to its origins and mechanics. Maybe I was entranced by Carpenter’s pulse-pounding synth score. Maybe I just enjoy hearing seasoned character actor Victor Wong spout out lines like, “Our logic collapses on the subatomic level… into ghosts and shadows!”
The film eventually devolves into more standard horror tropes like creepy crawlies, possessions, and reanimated corpses. A master of his craft even on autopilot, Carpenter handles these elements effectively. I like, for instance, the way the prerequisite sceptic, Walter (Dennis Dun), drops all macho pretenses in the final act, resulting in both the funniest and most suspenseful scene in the movie. However, the reason I end up revisiting Prince of Darkness every couple of years has more to do with the notion of brilliant scientific minds reasoning through the unreasonable. Scary yarns about the devil are a dime a dozen, but how many can convincingly quantify evil in terms of mirror anti-God particles?